On August 20, 2013, with a click of the remote, American households were able to get their news and commentary from a new venue: Al Jazeera America. Starting a new channel in an already overcrowded cable news scene seemed risky, but the high quality programming soon silenced the naysayers. The day it launched, Al Jazeera America aired Fault Lines: Made in Bangladesh, about American retailers turning a blind eye to the dangerous practices of overseas subcontractors. The following day came Fault Lines: Haiti in a Time of Cholera, which examined the post-earthquake epidemic that decimated the survivors. Both of those episodes won Peabody Awards this year.
With a number of groundbreaking documentary series airing, and more in the pipeline, the channel is rapidly becoming known for documentaries that look at issues in a novel way. Borderland, a four-part series on immigration from executive producers Ivan O'Mahoney and Nial Fulton, profiles six people with disparate views on immigration, as they follow the tragic journey of three immigrants—one of whom was a 13-year-old boy—who died trying to cross the border. The System features veteran filmmaker Joe Berlinger (Brother's Keeper; Paradise Lost) as a guide through the problems of the justice system, each episode examining a distinct issue: faulty forsenics, false confessions, flawed eye-witness testimony and mandatory minimum sentences, to name a few.
Documentary spoke to Shannon High-Bassalik, senior vice president for shows and documentaries, about Al Jazeera America's mission and goals, and how it differs from other channels that air docs.
Documentary: What is the programming culture and philosophy of Al Jazeera America?
Shannon High-Bassalik: Documentaries are in the DNA of Al Jazeera Networks as a company, so when they created Al Jazeera America, it just made sense to them to have a very high and prominent role for documentaries in the US. Our philosophy is telling rich, compelling stories from regular people's point of view. We're not into the politician's or the pundit's spin; we really are about immersive storytelling—stories where you learn something but also feel something, and walk away at the end feeling that you know more and understand more because you've seen it from that person's perspective.
D: What is an Al Jazeera documentary? How does an Al Jazeera documentary differ from one on POV, or Independent Lens, CNN Films or HBO?
SHB: I actually think we're going to be very distinctive in this way, because we're really looking for films that are immersive and experiential. Borderland is a really good example of that. We wanted to tackle the topic of immigration because it's really divisive. It's been done many times before, but it's been done in a pretty traditional way.
This documentary doesn't have a point of view, which is important because we don't come to things with a point of view at Al Jazeera. We let you see things from the ranchers' point of view and the problems they face, to immigration and border patrol officers, to the immigrants themselves. So by having viewers walk in the shoes of the ranchers, border patrol and immigrants, you come out of the four-part series really understanding it, no matter your point of view; whether you are pro- or anti-immigration, you understand why we have the problems we have.
And we're hoping that leads to a conversation about immigration because that's really what Al Jazeera is about: We want to generate a conversation on all topics. That's how we're really going to stand out-we're really looking for more immersive and experiential kinds of documentaries.
D: In terms of formats, you have a mix of one-offs, such as Holy Money, and series such as Borderland, The System and Edge of Eighteen. Are you also open to shorts?
SHB: Yes, I have a magazine program called America Tonight, and I also have a half-hour documentary film show called Fault Lines. So when I'm approached with those types of films, I will connect those, depending on the topic. And I wish I would get more of those, frankly, because I would love to populate them in my America Tonight magazine program.
D: How do you find your films? Do you mostly commission films, or do you pick up completed films as acquisitions at festivals? How are filmmakers approaching you—in pitching forums or independently? Do you accept unsolicited pitches?
SHB: All of the above. I have a terrific documentary unit that is very experienced, is fabulous in acquisitions, goes to all the festivals, and is very in tune with that filmmaker community. I have team members who come from channels and are used to getting pitches from production companies. And at least half a dozen times a day, I will get an email from somebody who wants to pitch me a doc or a series. We're pretty much inundated.
D: How do you work with the filmmakers?
SHB: We're very organic. While we want them to fit into our mission of immersive storytelling and stories from the people's perspective, we're open to both the topic and how it's done. Our three series [Borderland, The System, Edge of Eighteen] are very different. Borderland is very experiential; The System is very investigative—not your typical justice system story. It's Joe Berlinger confronting government officials. And for Edge of Eighteen, coming in the fall and produced by Alex Gibney, we recruited 15 high school students from around the country with really interesting, unique stories. They got training from Gibney and other top documentary filmmakers like Alexandra Pelosi, for a week in New York. And they are filming their stories about what it's like to be a senior in high school and a teenager in the new millennium.
These are examples of series that address issues that are important to us: immigration, the justice system and education. When we look at films, we look at the issue and how they are coming at this issue. Is it a creative way? Is it immersive? Is it experiential?
We're not your father's documentary; that really does sum up some of the films, even the acquisitions and the commissions, the one-offs, that we are looking at and have purchased.
D: Should filmmakers come to the table with a multi-platform trans-media strategy, or is that something you develop in house?
SHB: It depends. Edge of Eighteen came to us with a multi-platform pitch, but no, not always. But it is something we develop because a multi-platform presence is important to us. We work with filmmakers and come up with a plan.
D: Is there a different programming strategy with respect to the website and YouTube channel?
SHB: At the moment we aren't allowed to place our docs there to be viewed in their entirety; we can place a few minutes of them. With Edge of Eighteen, for example, three of the 15 stories will actually live online. Over the course of six weeks, three to six minutes of daily footage will be shown online. Instead of being part of the hour-long doc on Sunday nights, these stories will be told exclusively online.
D: What is your target demographic?
SHB: We are reaching young people. It's interesting to see how young our audience is. For our coverage of President Obama's State of the Union address, our average age was 33 years old. We are skewing younger than the other cable networks. We're really targeting the Al Jazeera brand, which is the people who don't get to see themselves on television; we're talking about being a "voice for the voiceless."
D: Given that Al Jazeera America launched in August 2013, what have been the challenges in building an audience and establishing the brand?
SHB: A start-up is a start-up. When MSNBC and Fox News started, they faced the same challenges we face: You have to get people to the channel; they have to find you. We have a harder challenge than they did; when they launched, there was only CNN. When we launched, we were up against CNN, MSNBC, Fox, BBC, CCTV and RTV. There are so many more choices out there now for different kinds of news. So we face the challenges of any start-up in that we have to build an audience.
But we have seen steady growth in the eight months we've been in the air. We think our doc series will help that. We think that for people who have not heard of the channel or people who may only be aware of it, the docs will be a reason to come to us and check us out. Once people see us, they really like us. They like the fact that there's no screaming, we don't have a point of view, we tell stories that other people aren't telling, and we're in-depth. We have definitely seen growth and we're excited about that.
D: What is the barometer for success for Al Jazeera America?
SHB: The great thing about being a start-up is that I can just throw things at the wall and see what sticks. Traditional and established channels will say to the filmmaker, "This is what I want and if you can't give it to me, I don't want it." That's not where we're at, and I don't think we will ever get like that because we are very organic and very much open to all different types of storytelling.
Ratings will come into the mix, and that is inevitable, of course, because we're a rated channel and that's part of the US network culture. But I can honestly say, that if something doesn't rate well, that doesn't necessarily reflect on the doc. There are so many things that go into ratings.
So our barometer is: Is it a good doc? Is it well told? Do we think it has a potential to win awards? When awards season comes around, did it win awards?
We were only on the air last year for four months, and both in the docs and programs unit we've already won ten awards: two Peabodys, seven National Headliner Awards—Google and the World Brain won first place—and America Tonight won a Gracie.
We want to do good quality and that's really going to be our barometer. Are we being noticed by the reviewers, by the audience, by our peers, for being the channel that has the best quality—whether it's news, programs, docs or series?
D: What do you pay for docs in their various formats?
SHB: Obviously, we don't talk financials. It's fine you asked because everybody asks me. What I can tell you is that it is a tough market; CNN has now gotten into the game, Netflix and Amazon are now getting into it, and they are willing to throw quite a bit of money at it. I personally don't like bidding wars. The market is tough one, but one of the things we bring to the table is that filmmakers want to work with us; they understand we're long-term. Al Jazeera Networks has been doing documentaries virtually from the day that the channel started. So filmmakers are very interested in working with us because they know we're as committed to their film as they are.
D: What would you say to a filmmaker interested in pitching to Al Jazeera America?
SHB: No topic is off limits. We're a news channel, so we're issue-oriented. And we care about deep issues, not frivolous ones; that's not what we're about. If you've got a film that is a great issue and comes at it in an immersive, personal, compelling way, we'd love to see it.
Darianna Cardilli is a Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker and editor. She can be reached at www.darianna.com.